First published in ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts’ magazine Spring 2014
Over the last ten years of teaching Taiji full-time I have had the pleasure of meeting many different people from all sorts of walks of life. From teenagers to 90 year olds, from gymnasts and ballet dancers to boxers and fitness trainers, from staunch businessmen to placid yogis, from couch potatoes to triathletes, you name it; they have probably been to one of my classes or booked in for some one-to-one time with me. One of the greatest things about being a teacher is meeting lots of people, and being an avid learner, ever keen to improve my own skills too, I am always fascinated in how as humans we all vividly exhibit similar patterns in how we move, think and learn despite myriad superficial differences. Just as Sherlock Homes points out we often miss out on learning some really good stuff that is in fact right in front of our noses:
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”[i]
One of the main things I have observed along the way, both in myself and virtually everyone around me, is that from a relatively young age we all gradually lose our body-awareness, proprioception and sense-perception and this is matched usually by diminished mobility, integrated strength and stability in the general body structure. This is especially evident in the lower half of the body comprising the feet, legs and hips and lower back. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this is mirrored by an increasing dominance of mental activity unrelated to what is actually happening within and around us in the real world, in real time, over the visceral, present, down to earth world of sensation. It’s like we slowly suffer from a kind of ever increasing disassociation from our physical selves and this supplements a gross imbalance between the physical and mental threads that inextricably twine together to form the whole human. We tend to become incredibly top-heavy as we leave childhood. Unless this imbalance is addressed from the off then I feel it is very difficult to facilitate optimum health and fitness and our more standard, less perceptive attempts to do so are somewhat counter-productive. For generally when most of us exercise, it is most often inspired by a aesthetic bid to simply change the way we look from the outside rather than a conscious re-orientation towards integration and balance. This is even, and often especially, the case in ‘alternative’ or ‘mind-body’ disciplines. The question of ‘how’ doesn’t usually come into our equation; the actual quality of the movement/exercise we engage in, whether it requires the relaxed, focused awareness necessary to address these kind of imbalances, is rarely a consideration.
For me Taijiquan is an absolutely genius system in this sense because it immediately addresses this imbalance right from the start and from this most sensible of premises proceeds to offer stupendous benefits of all kinds (too numerous to mention!). However, developing this receptive and perceptive mindset can be quite tricky. Even with the wonderful art of Taiji it is easy for us remain mentally dominant and just kind of intellectually collect and blindly repeat Taiji movements without paying the relaxed attention necessary to deeply immerse ourselves within the world of sensation i.e. directly engage with what we are doing in real time, that I feel fundamentally constitutes ‘doing Taiji’. Practising something very simple is a good place to start as it gives our big, interfering brains a chance to calm down and get with the programme in hand. So this time I’m going to talk about and encourage you to try the superb practise of squatting.
Almost all of us sit down far too much, even children. We humans originally evolved to be hunter-gatherers primed to be steadily on the move all day with our plethora of senses finely honed to be highly receptive. Staying firmly grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off into some revelry about the past or future was then, as it is now, vital not only for survival but also for healthy, happy and successful living.[ii]
Lack of movement in day-to-day life has seriously negative health implications; if we can simply do more walking (or more Taiji!) each day then we can placate that hunter-gather part of ourselves and begin to disperse some of our excessive mental energy. Even better, if we can improve our perception and functioning of the much neglected foundational, lower halves of our bodies then not only will this focus and engage our minds in their fundamentally embodied nature but our overall health and mobility can be seriously enhanced. A kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link as they say.
Back in 2004 when I first went to train in Beijing one of the many things that amazed me was just how often people would rest by squatting flat-footed on the ground rather than sitting on a chair. Everyone would do it, from little children right up to the eldest of the elderly. It seemed that the majority of people could demonstrate this excellent, basic mobility. Often after training we would eat our lunch in the park and all just simply squat down in a circle around a very low table. This was noticeably excellent for my lower body and I love training while I’m resting! At this point in time most of the toilets in China consisted of a simple hole or small trench rather than a western toilet, and so a simple ablution would require careful, mindful squatting and balance in order for it to be successful. Fortunately, when I was twenty years old my first ever Taiji teacher taught me how to squat properly. Despite being quite young and what I thought was very flexible (I could happily do the splits for example) to begin with I found it very difficult to do and couldn’t maintain the position for very long. It really perplexed me to find such a simple thing so difficult! Yet with daily practice it rapidly became easier as my joints and spine became stronger, more mobile and more stable. It really helped with my Taiji and to this day I really enjoy squatting on a very regular basis and often much to the amusement of people around me. Funnily enough, nowadays I feel that flexibility is quite a gross misconception and an attribute that isn’t half as useful as many people make out who seem to strive for it, especially if we compare it to something much more functional like mobility. Anyway, that’s another story for another time.
Being able to squat successfully requires and facilitates excellent hip, ankle and spinal mobility, stability and leg strength. It also promotes healthy digestive, elimination and sexual functions. It is worth remembering that in reality squatting is simply a basic and fundamental human movement rather than an ‘exercise’ to torture ourselves with. Again for me it brings to mind our ancient hunter-gatherer friends squatting round a fire, relaxed, alert and ever-ready to move. Many of us in the west, even youngsters, cannot even nearly carry out a full flat footed squat but if we could learn to do it well and regularly it would do us the world of good and address some of the imbalances that impact deeply upon our health that I mentioned earlier. It’s not something that people normally think of when they want to ‘get fit’ but what better place to start than learning how to lower your body down and then lift yourself up from the ground? Learn to walk before you run, learn to stand before you walk and learn to squat before you stand, that’s what I say! And if you want it to sound a bit more mystical then just consider it to be practicing the art of ‘sitting without sitting’. That must be in the Tao Te Ching somewhere! So try it for yourself, see how you get on and incorporate it into your daily life but don’t throw away all your chairs and sofas just yet, please wait until you have actually tried it.
Here is a rough guide to how it is done but it’s much better if you mainly just experiment intelligently with it for yourself. As long as you pay relaxed attention to what you are doing and do not force your body to anything particularly uncomfortable you will be able to discover how you body actually moves in its current state and go from there. Just practice slowly, softly, smoothly and sensibly. What we want to do is a flat footed squat as opposed to a heels up or ‘Western’ squat where we rest on the balls of the feet. The flat footed squat comprises a highly beneficial closed kinetic chain of movement whereas the heels up version does not, is invariably much easier but places more stress on the knees and is less productive in the long run, especially when it comes down to improving hip mobility in a sustainable way.
There are a few basic variations on how we can go about it so to begin with I suggest starting with a stance of approximately shoulder width apart and with your feet facing forwards or both turned a little outwards at more or less the same angle. We can vary the width of our stance all the way from a narrow gait i.e. feet together to a wider double shoulder width stance. It’s nothing to get caught up about; each variation simply offers slightly different emphasis. I suggest that once you establish the basic way of doing it that I outline here you vary how you do it from time to time and investigate the differences for yourself. Remember, try to go with the flow of how your body moves naturally rather than forcing it to move in a way that you think it should. Simply practice, observe and learn from your own experience without judgement. For example, no body is a hundred percent symmetrical and it really is counterproductive to pursue such ideals.
From our shoulder width stance then, we want to slowly but carefully relax and lower the hips down and back using our connection through the legs to the ground to support the upper body. It is just natural for the upper body to move forwards a little in order to balance the movement of the hips so do not try to force yourself to be straight. Over time as your mobility improves the amount you lean will probably lessen naturally. Gradually keep sitting down and see how low you can go without causing too much discomfort. Watch out for any pain in your joints: this is an indication to move much less or stop.
As you sit down relax your hips and with your knees soft try to keep your feet flat on the ground i.e. don’t lift your heels. Find out if you can also relax your feet. Gently encourage your knees to track the line of your feet; many of us will find that our knees want to collapse inwards. Keep working on it and slowly but surely this will improve as the tensegrity of your body structure becomes more balanced. Again, it is just natural if you feel certain parts of your body are restricted. For example, it is very common to sense that your calves and hip flexors are tight. All these observations are just interesting insights into how you have used your body up to this point and offer an excellent starting point for great improvement. If you can only go down a little way without lifting your heels and/or knees collapsing inwards, perhaps you can just comfortably manage a half-squat, then that’s all good; just slowly and carefully lift yourself up consciously using your legs and the ground to lift and support your body. If you try it a few times in succession, a few times every day then you should find that slowly but surely your comfortable range of movement will improve until you can sit all the way down into your heels so that your backside is almost on the floor. This may take some time. Just be patient and persevere. Gradually as you get used to it you will start to notice, if you pay attention, that the whole body shifts and balances as you lower yourself down and lift yourself up. Just as with all movement, there is no part that is not involved in this balancing process. The more you can relax and focus your mind on perceiving the plethora of inherent nuances and sensations the more you can learn and benefit from the movement.
If you find it fairly easy to do a full squat then you can try staying in this squatting position for a few minutes and investigate your body-experience of this. Occasionally, slowly shift your weight side to side a little and rock your weight forward and back. Again this will emphasise different aspects of your structure allowing you insights into how you move. From here you can further experiment by executing your squats extremely slowly and continually without pause. To begin with see if you can try taking half a minute to go down and half a minute to go up again all in one fluid motion. This can be fairly hard work so just be careful; the slowness of the movement should be mirror the amount to care and mindfulness you put into it.
Lots of us will find this exercise quite a challenge and perhaps not want to do it because of this. If you find it difficult because your knees roll in or your legs struggle to support your torso for example, then this is more of an indication of the current state of your body than anything else and highlights even more of an incentive to practise and improve. It is best not to judge before experience so just relax and keep trying it out every now and again. For almost everyone, if they pay attention and persevere, will be able to glean lots of benefit from regular practise. So instead of slumping into your favourite armchair, try squatting for a bit instead. If you are fairly happy squatting anyway, experiment with yourself and see if you can watch your favourite TV show whilst maintaining this position. Often I eat my meals squatting in the garden and it is very satisfying. When I slowly get up again I feel my hips and spine are more fluidly mobile and somehow stronger than before. I’m not sure what my neighbours think though… Happy squatting!
You should always check with your GP before starting any new exercise regime and anyone attempting the exercises outlined in this article do so entirely at their own risk.
Sam teaches Chen style Taijiquan full-time across Sussex.
[i] Doyle, A.C. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” 2007. Penguin Classics.
[ii] Dawkins, R. “The Ancestors’s Tale.” 2005. Phoenix.